Lebanese ministers focused on international trips over reform, says monitor

The Lebanese Center for Policy Studies says Lebanon's government has accomplished little in its first few months

Facade of Lebanon's electricity company in Beirut, Lebanon March 26, 2019. Picture taken March 26, 2019. REUTERS/Mohamed Azakir
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Despite promises to implement rapid reforms, the Lebanese government formed in January after nearly nine months of difficult negotiations has accomplished little so far, a local think tank said this week.

The country is under intense pressure to reform its economy and tackle corruption in order to avoid a looming economic crisis and take advantage of billions of dollars in proffered international loans.

After receiving Parliamentary approval for its policy plan mid-February, returning Prime Minister Saad Hariri vowed to “work, work, work”.

Since then, the council of Ministers has held three sessions, but “few relevant matters were discussed,” the Lebanese Center for Policy Studies (LCPS) said on Tuesday.

According to the LCPS, 82 per cent of agenda items were administrative matters. Over one third of these focussed on official international trips requested by various ministries and state agencies. The government was also busy accepting in-kind contributions to state security agencies such as vehicles and medical equipment, according to the LCPS.

Only six per cent of agenda items tackled existing policies, such as issuing foreign currency treasury bills, protecting local produce, and extending UNIFIL’s mandate. The remaining agenda items were devoted to approving international agreements, including foreign loans and grants.

The LCPS criticised the new government for its poor track record, stressing that it had “committed to addressing important governance challenges to improve public services and ensure financial stability”.

The new Lebanese government had promised to overcome political divides in order to maximise efficiency, but it has been marred by corruption scandals and political bickering since it got to work nearly two months ago.

Parliamentarians have traded insults in the house, which led to the suspension of a prominent Hezbollah cadre for a year. Several political parties also accused the previous government of hiring thousands of public servants illegally. Others remain deeply divided regarding the government’s top priority: privatising the state-run electricity sector.

On Sunday, Mr Hariri called again for unity. “I hope all political parties will put aside their interests and work for the interest of the country and its citizens,” he said as he received well-wishers after undergoing a medical procedure in Paris.

But donor countries are running out of patience. They pledged $10.2 billion in loans and $860 million in grants in a conference held in Paris to boost the economy last April in exchange for reforms including increased transparency and reducing the budget deficit by one per cent every year over the next five years.

“After nine months, the government does not have the luxury of time,” said French diplomat Pierre Duquesne speaking about the implementation of the conference, dubbed CEDRE, at a press conference in Beirut last month.

Changes must happen “before the summer”, he said, adding that if they don’t, interest in Lebanon will “slowly erode”.